This is going to sound horribly trite, but we should all be more like Forrest Gump.
It’s a sweet thought, sure, but one that many people might say is overly simplistic, or is little more than a nice sentiment. In fact, if we’re being honest, that kind of sappy talk sounds pretty naïve.
Except that it isn’t.
I mean, look where “not being naïve” got Jenny. Or Lieutenant Dan.
Watching Forrest Gump again — 25 years after its initial release, when it came out of nowhere to tap into the a cultural zeitgeist in a profound way — it became clear (and humbling) to me that the title character is not someone to pity, laugh at, or affectionately dismiss. Forrest Gump is someone to genuinely aspire to be.
I’ll examine that in a moment, but first it’s important to remember what a phenomenon this movie was.
Opening to an impressive $24.5 million on July 6, 1994, this seemingly small story became a runaway sensation, tapping into the American zeitgeist like few people (if any) could have imagined.
In its second weekend it would take in another $24 million; in its third, $21 million. For the next two-and-a-half months, Forrest Gump would shift back-and-forth between the #1 and #2 spot at the box office, only dipping to #3 once.
It no doubt benefited from the breakout year that Tom Hanks had just had in 1993.
Between that summer’s Sleepless In Seattle and his Academy Award-winning turn in with Philadelphia (capped by a moving Oscar speech in the spring of ’94), Hanks went from being a popular comic actor to this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. Forrest Gump affirmed and completed that transformation.
Hanks came to embody decency itself. Through him and his second-consecutive Oscar-winning performance, Forrest Gump seemed to heal the broken American soul that it uniquely explored.
The film rode a wave of deep affection, earning Gump six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Director (for Robert Zemeckis, the populist helmer of Back to the Future and other hits). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction may have been the more inventive, groundbreaking film of that year, but Forrest Gump was Hollywood at its best, and its most admirable.
A quarter-century on, it still is. In fact, it’s even more aspirational now.
Detractors see a movie that’s maudlin and manipulative. I see the exact opposite. Forrest Gump actually challenges our conventional approach to the world rather than pandering to it. In an increasingly cynical world, it’s subversive.
But to “be” like Forrest is actually lot harder than it may seem. That’s because we’re all a lot closer to being like Jenny than we are like Forrest. It’s intrinsic to our human nature.
We run from our issues. We mask them beneath vice or distraction, or try to avoid and ignore them in a myriad of ways, including even commendable attempts at giving our lives purpose. Like Jenny, we may appreciate Forrest’s simple outlook, but we also discount it. It’s adorable, but it’s not realistic.
That’s a lie, and one that many people (like Jenny) don’t realize until it’s too late.
For 25 years, many people have gone into watching Forrest Gump essentially like Jenny, jaded and world-weary. Like her, they’ve been drawn to Forrest’s innate goodness, but it seems impractical, unattainable.
The film, however, shows us the path toward it.
To go from the damaged Jenny that we are to become the Forrest ideal we all long to be, we have to bravely embark on a soul-searching journey. A journey, say, like Lieutenant Dan’s. We have to face our broken dreams, our broken identities, and our broken bodies — and possibly even God Himself. The path is hard. It’s scary. But ultimately, it’s liberating.
It’ll probably get you mocked and laughed at, too. Becoming like Forrest comes with a price.
Forrest, who remains wholesome as he treks through the rebellious counterculture shifts of the 1960s and 70s, has come full circle. Today, he is counter-cultural.
Some critics, reflecting on the film’s anniversary through today’s standards (like here and here), even suggest that we should have a sober re-evaluation of the movie for its “scary implications.” To many of its backlashers, Forrest Gump has become worse than maudlin; it’s dangerous.
This cynical hot-take suggests that Forrest Bump somehow sends a message that “hard questions [about serious issues] don’t matter.” What a huge misread, but it also explains why Forrest’s pure nature has no place in today’s post-modern enlightenment.
Being like Forrest requires an innocence that most of us would be too embarrassed to live out.
We’ve culturally evolved past wholesomeness. The times demand that we abandon decorum. Protest, confrontation, scorn, and (when necessary) ostracization; these are the only acceptable moral positions.
The modern instinct to ridicule Forrest’s childlike approach to the world (and even warn against) is born out of our own Pharisaical arrogance. “God, I appreciate Forrest, and he’s even charming, but thank you that I’m not as stupid as he is.”
The ongoing ascent to intellectualism, and seeing it as our highest virtue (especially when used as a social media cudgel), has made our hearts toxic. We are in a bad place. We need to be liberated from the cynicism of our own sophistication. We’ve always need that, I guess, but perhaps now more than ever.
Twenty-five years ago, that’s exactly what Forrest Gump did.
It transcended a generation’s most bitter divide (the Vietnam War) by giving us a man who lived in such a way that he never became corrupted by that divide. He never conformed to its bitterness, even as he had a front row seat to its tumultuous destruction.
More than anything — more than the humor, nostalgia, or clever, quotable aphorisms — that’s why Forrest Gump struck a chord. It’s why it still does.
Not that the humor, nostalgia, and clever quotes should be marginalized.
The core narrative structure — of how a low IQ redneck nobly bumbles his way through the most important events of the mid-to-late 20th Century — was an inspired premise that resonated. It allowed audiences to laugh, cry, get angry, grieve, and wax wistful over the American experience that they’d experienced.
There’s something in the way that Zemeckis frames and filters it all — through Forrest — that caused the film to embody the soul of America itself. Deeper still, people were drawn to Forrest’s innocence.
But more to the point, about this notion that Forrest was “bumbling”: yes, that’s the most obvious take, but I’d suggest that it’s a false one. It presumes that how Forrest perceives the world is limited, inadequate, problematic, or oblivious.
That view fundamentally misunderstands Forrest and, more broadly, people with lower intellects. That misunderstanding is rooted in our prejudice for chic intellectual elitism, as well as the affirmation that virtue-signaling our “intellect” brings.
Forrest Gump didn’t bumble. Rather, within his own unique sense of self (a kind that led to his own self-agency), he didn’t judge. On the contrary he honored people and his promises to them (whether spoken or relationally-implicit). And in the most harrowing moments, he showed valor.
Intellect, urbanity, and worldliness are our contemporary idols, but they also make us condescending assholes. Being simple-minded, however, doesn’t. In fact, it nurtures just the opposite.
Forrest saw things and saw people as they were, right there, in the moment. Critics would argue, then, that he lacked a necessary discernment. That’s also false.
Forrest does discern, but his perception is of a different sort. He never saw or factored in race, disability, or disease (or the evolving narratives we attach to them). He saw past resentment, hostility, and even personal rejection. It would never have dawned on him to require an ideological litmus test.
I’d contend, too, that his discernment is fundamentally more accurate because it’s based on actions and their effects, not on biased parameters that can cause people to skew what’s actually happening — or to even compromise our convictions.
None of this turned Forrest into a sucker, either. He became angry at times, even confrontational, but in moments when people (like Jenny) were being ridiculed, harmed, or were in danger, never because of some sociopolitical dogma.
Forrest’s so-called naiveté doesn’t lack moral clarity. nor is it ignorant. It displays wisdom, restraint, generosity, and grace, along with necessary action (but the kind of action that our current reasoning often has contempt for).
Forrest may not be a smart man, as he confessed to Jenny, but he knows what love is. I suspect he knows more than most.
That actually proves itself out when, later in the film, Forrest starts to run across the country coast-to-coast, back-and-forth, seemingly without end. As he does, he becomes a cultural icon; a Rorschach figure for an entire generation that’s disaffected and lost. To them, Forrest must have somehow “figured it all out.”
He had, but not in the way they supposed or were wanting. They were expecting philosophical answers to be concrete but, ultimately, those answers (or even scientific ones) can’t resolve the mysteries of life. Only experience, when embarked on with humility and humanity, can begin to provide that.
One of Forrest Gump’s most enduring traits is how quotable it is, but the most popular sayings don’t necessarily capture the film’s essence or what, to my mind, actually makes it profound. But these two do:
- “Mama always said dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.”
- “My mama always told me that miracles happen every day. Some people don’t think so, but they do.”
Those may not be Forrest Gump‘s most famous lines but, from the first’s quote’s despair to the second’s belief in something bigger, they beautifully sum up the film’s emotional and thematic scope. (The second also undercuts the notion that the film is about “dumb luck” nihilism; that’s not what miracles are.)
The essence of those two quotes come together in the film’s recurring reunions. As Forrest travels across the nation and the world from his Alabama small town, he’s taken away from the most important people in his life: Jenny, Lt. Dan, and his mama.
But as Forrest’s story unfolds across decades, it brings him back to these people, and they to him. These reunions (on the Washington Mall, in the Louisiana bayou, back home, and more) all pack a distinct power, becoming more emotional with each progressive one. They’re the kind of moments that only the movies can give us (along with other magical ones, like when young Forrest runs for the first time; that still gives me chills).
The deep connection struck within these reunions tapped into something primal that we all hunger for, and that’s another reason why Forrest Gump became such a phenomenon.
It came on the scene just as the age of irony was starting to peak. Sincerity was antiquated, cheesy, and laughable. It was so completely uncool. Then came along Forrest Gump, with its unassuming, guileless hero who was anything but ironic, and that’s exactly what the nation’s soul needed. It’s what we desperately longed for.
It’s what our soul needs again.
Forrest Gump can show us a different way than the destructive path we’re on. It’s a way guided by how counter-cultural he is.
Forrest Gump isn’t woke. He’s pure. I’d rather be pure.
And that’s all I have to say about that.